Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911 (review)
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Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911. By Barbara Hochman. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011. Pp. xv, 377. $28.95 cloth)

Barbara Hochman’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911 adds greatly to our understanding of both Stowe’s novel and the history of reading in America. Hochman’s book examines transformations in the cultural work done by Uncle Tom’s Cabin from the time of its publication through the centenary of Stowe’s birth. She focuses on acts of reading: scenes of readership in the novel and the experiences of actual readers. Hochman details the ways Uncle Tom’s Cabin pushed upon familiar white, middle-class tropes, challenging its first readers to reconsider assumptions about sympathy, reading, race, and childhood. Yet sixty years later, Hochman argues, repackaged editions of the novel and new attitudes about reading itself shifted perceptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; once read as a Christian melodrama which had the power to break “down the imaginative distance between . . . white readers and . . . African American characters,” it became a racist book that told a comic story of white superiority (p. 17). [End Page 209]

Hochman’s ambitious work combines literary analysis with in-depth study of Stowe’s readers to flesh out the divergent roles the novel played in the American cultural imagination. She situates Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s within multiple genres: sentimental fiction, slave narratives, children’s literature, history, and realism. Remaining mindful that readers’ “comments always trail behind the reading experience,” Hochman traces readers’ responses to the text, looking at what was both said and unsaid (p. 6). She analyzes diaries, letters, reviews, and marginalia; she studies numerous editions of the text itself from the original serialized version to the framed edition in the Woman’s Building Library at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and to abridgements for children. She pays particular attention to changes in illustrations—what moments from the story are depicted and how.

Hochman first recreates the experience of Stowe’s early readers, in particular how Stowe worked within and pushed against reading conventions. She begins with the version serialized in the National Era, suggesting that Stowe’s breaks from abolitionist clichés allowed her white readers to occupy the subjectivities of black characters. She goes on to argue that Stowe’s scenes of black literacy assert slaves’ “humanity, inner life, and cumulative memory” (p. 74). She investigates the ways Uncle Tom’s Cabin challenged her contemporaries’ moral resistance to fiction by reimagining the reading process, and she devotes special attention to children’s editions, particularly the decisions of abridgers and illustrators. She argues that these “drew children in and allowed them to imagine diverse subjectivities” and to “narrow the gap between [children’s] idea of themselves and their conception of slave ‘otherness’” (p. 130).

Hochman’s then investigates how differently readers after the Civil War approached Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She demonstrates convincingly that Stowe’s later readers viewed the novel as “a powerful agent of social change” that had achieved its goal—a chance for “cultural self-congratulation” (pp. 147, 148). As sentimental reading habits lost their currency and slavery became “history,” the text came to play a new role. Hochman compares later editions of the novel with earlier ones, looking at how new introductions, illustrations, and [End Page 210] abridgements reframed the plot, characters, and reading experience to “project the illiteracy and subservience of African Americans into an unending future” (p. 204). Hochman’s Epilogue focuses on African American readers’ conflicted responses to a novel which at once offered them insight into the rarely discussed history of slavery but also reinforced painful stereotypes.

Hochman’s book embraces the complexities of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the evolution of its role in American culture. By working through the ways Stowe depicts readers and was in turn read by them, Hochman gives us layered insight into the history of reading as well as the history of reading this book.

Elizabeth Fekete Trubey

Elizabeth Fekete Trubey is senior lecturer in English at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She...